What crossed your mind when you saw this title?
Chains? Gates? Locks, bolts, and keys? Armed men standing at the door? Prison inmates stinking and looking at you, wishing you would pass them your plate of poorly cooked beans and say you’re too sick to eat it? Or the writ of another philosopher? I do not know. Whatever it is that you’re imagining now, I do not know. Am I your inmate? I do not know.
What I do know is this: everyone is a prisoner!
I’m sure you have heard the popular quote by Victor Hugo that goes thus: “he who opens a school door closes a prison”. What prison?
I will not make a sweeping statement by saying that he referred to the literal prison where my educated and kind-hearted friend is currently serving a term, but could it be so? Well, let’s look at it a little more cautiously. Everyone will agree that even when illiteracy is a motivating factor for crime and eventual imprisonment, there aren’t only illiterates in prison. In fact, there are a good number of people, who have ‘opened many school doors’ as it were, and ended up having to stay for the rest of their lives with inmates who always needed their poorly cooked beans. These people were not uneducated, but somehow, they ended up in prison.
Again, I would be forced to think in this direction – the prison referred to by Victor may not just be literal, but symbolic. Is that hard to understand? Let me make you answer ‘No’. It simply means that if Sam ‘opens a school door’, he would surely learn something from a teacher whose job it is to enlighten. One day, as he learns what the teacher knows, and develops his level of understanding, he will eventually graduate from the school as an educated individual. Thus, Sam ‘closes a prison’ of ignorance! Can ignorance be fittingly called a prison? I would say ‘yes’. When one is uneducated or ignorant, he will surely be bound to the chains of shame, locked behind the bars of regrets, and smart enough to desire someone else’s ‘poorly cooked beans’.
You may be wondering, what in the name of God does all these have to do with the title up there? That question will be resolved by understanding the third perspective from which I am viewing Victor Hugo’s statement. Refer again to the last words in his quote – “closes a prison”. Let’s try to replace the article “a” with “the” and see what difference it makes now. It would read “he who opens a school door closes the prison”. If this was to be the quote, he would have rendered this third reasoning invalid, but he chose to make the quote read the way you know it to be. It could be that Victor didn’t only have in mind one stinking literal prison, but up to two symbolic prisons. How so? Assume that there are two symbolic prisons – the prison of ignorance explained above, and the prison of literacy. The prison of literacy here will mean the prison for the one who has attained the status of an educated individual. Going by this understanding, such an individual is chained or restricted from doing those things that an uneducated person would do. He would also have to stay behind the bars of possible wealth and comfort, and be smart enough to trade a meager part of his knowledge for good food, and money.
Am I free now to prove that everyone is a prisoner? As you may know, an individual is either educated or is an illiterate. There is just no fence to sit on here. So, you have to be in one of the prisons – ignorance or literacy. Are you not a prisoner?
The essence of the whole quote cannot be overemphasized – education is a key to freedom from the enslavement to ignorance. If you have read this far, without problems of understanding, or even getting offended, then I know three things that are true about you. You are educated, inquisitive, and you most likely do not bear the name – “everyone”. So literally, you are probably not a prisoner.